Whether you're tackling a habit, adjusting your routine, or beginning the journey into healing your inner wounds, there are some things you need to know about change so that you're not surprised--and more importantly, so that you don't give up.
You Aren't Wired for Change
Sure, we have the ability to adapt and learn and overcome--but the priority programmed into every cell of your body is to survive. That means keep doing what works which, since you're still alive, your body assumes is whatever you've been doing.
Your brain is designed to get used to the things you do most often, to make those things easier, and to reward you when you stick with them. From a survival point of view, this is a brilliant system! But it can also get in our way when patterns of thought and behavior that used to be helpful aren't anymore.
How've you gotten through the tough parts of life? How have you satisfied your needs and wants? Your brain remembers what gets the payoff most dependably, and keeps asking for that. The more we go down a certain path of thought and choice, the more well-worn and easily-traveled that path becomes.
That's not just an illustration; it's a literal, neurological reality.
Picture a set of wheel ruts on a dirt road that's been traveled the same way for years, and imagine you're on your bike in the middle of those ruts, trying to turn out and go a new way. That is what it's like to begin changing your habits, your inner narrative, your relationship to your emotions.
But the good news is our neurochemistry serves our purpose as we stick to our goals. As we repeat our new, healthy habits and strategies for coping, they get easier, too.
Motivation is a Myth
"I just can't find the motivation." When we hear ourselves saying this, we're already detached from the reality of the system we're working with.
Back when I was in my Master's program, I stopped exercising. It had always been a priority for me, but with classes, internship, and work, a lot of things just had to go. Then afterward when I got some of my life back, I got back into the gym right away.
And you know what? It sucked. It really sucked. But I had the advantage of knowing from my past experience with fitness that starting up after a long hiatus (or starting for the very first time) is just going to be an ordeal. I also knew that if I stuck with it I would soon be reaping the benefits of better energy, improved mood, and a body that actually craves exercise.
A lot of people never change because we get stuck waiting for it to feel different. But getting started is always uncomfortable. It's getting into your groove that feels good.
It's Okay to Make it Easier for Yourself
Against all odds, I've become something of a morning person. I actually like being up early when the world hasn't quite got going yet, and the unique quiet of it is something to savor.
But this is not because I enjoy the act of getting out of bed. There's literally no way to make that feel good. Science has proven that your bed is twenty times as cozy in the morning than when you got in the night before.
This is another example of the truth already illustrated: the first part of the change is the hardest. We're wired to resist it. But I know that once the coffee's in my hand and I'm sitting next to my big dog on the couch, I'm good to go. Now the morning feels great.
So I do myself a favor. I set up the coffee the night before so when my alarm goes off it's already brewing. The aroma fills the house and even as I struggle to let go of the sweet clutches of sleep it reminds me that just over this hurdle is the kind of morning I've come to enjoy.
As we endeavor to make any kind of change in our lives, we need to identify what helps. When does it get easier? When do I begin to feel the benefit, or at least believe in it a little more? And what can help me look forward to that through the hardest parts?
There's no principle to struggle or suffering that demands we maximize them in order to improve ourselves. As you map out the path to an improved life, it's okay to look for those ways you can help yourself along. Get creative, unconventional, and maybe a little kinder to yourself as you tackle this journey.
And then one day you'll discover you've made a new groove, and you'll never go back.
Mike Ensley, LPCC, is a nationally board-certified professional counselor in Loveland, CO.
Photo by Wolfgang Rottmann.